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Supreme Court says Human Rights Watch Director must leave Israel

What happened: The Israeli Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Omar Shakir, the Israel based director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) to allow him to remain in Israel. The ruling upheld a decision of the lower court which approved a Government decision not to renew Shakir’s visa because he supports a boycott of the State of Israel. Shakir, a US citizen will not have his work visa renewed and will have to leave the country within 20 days.

  • The court said it did not find sufficient evidence to overturn the lower court’s decision and described Shakir’s: “Systematic support for BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) which continued after he began his work for the organisation, his conduct surrounding FIFA as well as his repeated call for boycotting Israeli assets in the region, is based on a sweeping denial of the legitimacy of Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria.”
  • Shakir tweeted his response, saying that if the government insisted on its decision, Israel “would join the ranks” of Iran, North Korea and Egypt in blocking access of Human Rights Watch officials.

Context: The case and subsequent appeal involved the implementation of a controversial law, The Entry into Israel Law Amendment 28, passed in 2017, that allows the Israeli government to prevent entry into the country to an individual who publicly supports a boycott of Israel or Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

  • Shakir’s lawyers had argued that his personal activity in support of a boycott of Israel had ended when he started working for HRW.  Furthermore, as HRW is not recognised by the government as a ‘BDS organisation’  he should be granted ‘immunity’ from this law. The court ruled that he is responsible for his public statements, especially those on his private Twitter account.
  • According to HRW, neither it nor Shakir has called for an outright boycott of Israel, instead they claim that Shakir is being targeted because of the group’s opposition to West Bank settlements and its calls for companies to stop working with the settlements.
  • In April, the Jerusalem District Court concluded that Shakir “continued to publicly call for a boycott against the State of Israel or parts of it, and in the same breath, requests Israel open its doors to him.”
  • Minister for Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan applauded the decision. He said Shakir is a “BDS activists who took advantage of his stay in Israel to harm it, something no sane country would allow. Israel sees great importance in the activities of real human rights organisations, granting hundreds of visas every year to human rights activists.  HRW is welcome to appoint another representative in Israel in place of Shakir if it chooses to do so.”
  • Nitsana Darshan-Leitner from the Israeli NGO Shurat Hadin  also praised the court decision saying: “The Supreme Court took for granted that there is no right of entry into the country, and certainly no right to work, nor even the right to petition the Supreme Court at all, for those who work towards harming the State of Israel and striving for its destruction.  Shakir is the one who pushed Airbnb to delist the Jewish homes in the territories and even took pride in having the hosting platform comply with his diktats.”
  • Shakir’s lawyer, Michael Sfard said that with the decision: “Israel is joining a list of countries like Syria, Iran, and North Korea that have expelled Human Rights Watch representatives in an attempt to silence criticism of human rights violations going on in their territories. Today they are expelling Omar, tomorrow they will expel anyone who criticises government policies in the West Bank.”
  • Joint List leader Ayman Odeh MK  said the decision not to renew Shakir’s visa: “Only proves to us and the world how much his work is needed.”

Looking ahead: Despite not having his visa renewed, Shakir was allowed to stay in Israel for the duration of the appeal but he is now obliged to leave the country in 20 days or face deportation.

  • Although the ruling made clear that it was based on Shakir’s specific activity, and not Human Rights Watch as an organisation, the case will generate significant criticism from other human right’s organisations who will say that Israel is trying to restrict their activity.
  • The Supreme Court did not rule on the legality of the Entry into Israel Law, Amendment 28  which is being challenged in a separate case, Prof. Alon Harel v. the Knesset and a hearing is scheduled for 11 November 2019.